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Iraqi Exiles in England Register to Vote

Iraqi exiles around the world have begun registering to cast absentee ballots in this month's election in their homeland. VOA's Michael Drudge visited a registration center in London, and reports there is an air of excitement and hope about the prospect of reviving democracy in Iraq.

The cavernous Wembley Conference Center in northwest London is one of three voter registration sites in Britain, which is home to about a quarter-million Iraqi exiles.

The International Organization for Migration is a non-government group helping to organize the voting by Iraqi exiles in 14 countries around the world. The IOM estimates as many as 150,000 Iraqis in Britain will register and cast ballots.

Among them is Ahmed Shames, who fled to Britain eight years ago after several members of his family in Iraq were arrested. Mr. Shames is one of 500 Iraqi volunteers manning the voter registration tables in London, Manchester and Glasgow.

"I've been dreaming about this day since my teens and now I am very, very happy and very proud that I am actually part of the effort that will hopefully make this election a successful process for Iraq and a model for the Middle East and the Islamic world," he said.

Mr. Shames says the prospect of Iraq's first democratic election in decades has stirred up a lot of anticipation in Britain's Iraqi community.

"We see a lot of people. We see mothers with children, and we even see disabled people coming around to register their names for the elections. Everyone here is very, very excited. Some people are even emotional," he added. "They are expressing their views in a democratic way for the first time, probably, in their lives. Everyone is so happy and excited."

Another poll worker is Dunia Neama. She volunteered to help the election effort though she has never set foot in Iraq. Her parents fled Iraq before she was born, and she has spent the last 15 years in Britain. She sees the election as part of process that could one day allow her to go to her ancestral homeland.

"I think it's every Iraqis dream to go back to Iraq and see Iraq, but at the moment I think all the Iraqis that have a British or American or any foreign passport are in danger of getting kidnapped, killed at the moment," said Ms. Neama. "So hopefully when it settles a little bit we will definitely go back to live."

The shadow of the political, ethnic and religious violence lashing Iraq reaches all the way to the London voter registration center. Several poll workers and registrants told VOA they did not want to be interviewed or photographed, fearing their participation in the process could lead to reprisals against relatives still living in Iraq.

There also are strict security measures in place at the Wembley Center, as Stuart Poucher of the International Organization for Migration explains. "We've got X-ray machines and airport-type walk-through machines for people who want to come in," he said. "However, I would say that there is no specific security threat and I'm quite confident we will go through this without any major security incident."

Registration continues through next Sunday, and the first ballots in the historic Iraq election will be cast by exiles living in Australia on January 28.